The Gourmand's Guide to Fine Neopian Dining: Shenkuu
My Neopets and I have been around Neopia more than a few times, exploring exotic lands and immersing ourselves in varied cultures and atmospheres, and one of the foremost things we've noticed is: there is a lot of food out there. In our travels, one of our favourite things to do has been to indulge in each world's unique culinary traditions. We scout out the best restaurants, shops, and chefs, test their mettle, and come away feeling gastronomically enlightened—and really, really full.
With the realisation that such things are nearly as much fun to write and read about as to experience first-hand, my pets and I have decided to compile these guides to Neopian cuisine, by world, restaurant, or individual as our experience (and variety of items available) allows. We will begin each article with an overview of a culinary tradition, including its history and what recent developments in Neopia have done to influence it. We will then give a travelogue-esque description of the kinds of dining experiences you can expect when encountering this fare. Finally, we'll describe a list of dishes we found particularly interesting (and delicious). Our aim is to give the reader a brief respite from everyday cares and allow them to escape into a cultural food fantasy for a while. These articles should also be helpful for anyone planning a trip to the regions covered. Bon appétit!
The locale we've chosen for our first installment is Shenkuu. With its ancient history and rich cultural traditions, this awe-inspiring land of mountains and mist, philosophers and fancy robes has a plethora of regional culinary specialties to pick and choose from. Fortunately, you need not travel all over Shenkuu to get the full food spectrum, as many chefs from all over the land have set up businesses in the sprawling Imperial City. A commercial hub also known as the City of Ten Thousand Shops, you can find nearly anything there, whether it be merchants plying their wares, Neopets offering services from acupuncture to fortune-telling, or some of the finest eateries on the far side of Neopia.
Characteristics of Shenkuuvian cuisine as a whole include its reliance on rice, wheat, and millet as staple starches; the near total absence of dairy products; and fish as a main protein source, due to Shenkuu's proximity to the coastline. Shenkuuvian chefs place great emphasis on presentation and it is not unusual for one's dish to be elaborately arranged and decorated with meticulously carved fruits or vegetables, or edible flowers. Such loving display shows a chef's hospitality to their customers and respect for their craft itself as an art form.
Sushi, one of Shenkuu's most famous dishes, has its origin in the vinegared rice Shenkuuvians often pack on journeys as an efficient and non-spoiling travel food. While aquatic Shenkuuvians have been eating raw fish since time immemorial, it was an enterprising Peophin several centuries ago who got the idea to roll the fish up with vinegared rice and dried seaweed for a complete meal. The rest is culinary history, as sushi became a favourite on-the-go food for urban Neopets, first in Shenkuu and then over the rest of Neopia.
Pasta seems to have been developed here separately from other places where it is found, such as Neopia Central, especially since its incorporation into dishes is so vastly different here. While Neopia Central pasta generally is paired with tomato or cream sauces, its favoured use in Shenkuu is in soups or stir-fries, where it is prepared with liberal amounts of vegetables and proteins in a savoury broth or sauce. An important part of Shenkuuvian etiquette is to slurp these noodles loudly when eating them. While this is frowned upon in most other Neopian cultures, in Shenkuu this shows your host how much you are enjoying your food.
The discovery of Shenkuu by the rest of Neopia heralded an unprecedented development in this land's culinary tradition, as mercantilism between it and the outside world allowed new foods to reach Shenkuuvian kitchens. This has resulted in an upwelling of fusion cuisine, where imaginative and enterprising chefs incorporate non-native foodstuffs into traditional dishes to create new and surprisingly delicious dining experiences.
As mentioned before, the Imperial City is generally the best place to find a restaurant, if you have the Neopoints to spare. The residents will be eager to tell you all about their favourite joints, from world-renowned locales constantly packed with customers to surprisingly good hole-in-the-wall places that are like hidden treasures waiting for discovery in the narrow side streets of the city. Eateries here tend to specialize in a single category of dish, from sushi to noodle soup to dumplings, although a number of establishments also try to cater to a general crowd and present a smattering of selections to sample.
As you step into any one of these, prepare to be greeted with a hearty welcome, and expect to be treated like the chef's best friend even if she's never seen you before. Specialty restaurants are usually arranged as a circle of tables and booths around a central workspace so the chef and her assistants can interact personally with the customers, taking orders and passing out food as soon as it's made so you're guaranteed freshness. While you're there, take the time to look around and enjoy the atmosphere, as most restaurants are often elaborately decorated with seasonal flower arrangements, silk-screen paintings, and fun little knick-knacks on the walls such as masks used in plays and decorative weapons. Some places may even feature a tank full of brightly coloured aquatic Petpets swimming about, which can be quite relaxing to watch as you eat.
Out in the countryside and in the mountains, paid eateries are rarer. Most dining experiences happen with your host and his family or friends, as Shenkuuvians have a strong tradition of mealtimes as times of bonding. However humble the circumstances, always revel in the fact that your host respects and appreciates you enough to share his hard-earned food with you and invite you to sit with his family. While not nearly as sophisticated as city dining, it is a cozy, heartwarming atmosphere that you'll never forget.
Belonthiss Roll – This tasty roll looks just like a Belonthiss!
A prime example of Shenkuuvian chefs' artistry, this sushi roll has been whimsically crafted to resemble one of Shenkuu's native aquatic Petpet species. Note the clever use of roe for the eyes and greens to emulate the fins. The dish itself is nothing to sneeze at, as the sticky-sweet rice perfectly complements the tender fish and salty seaweed wrap. Dressing food up to look like Petpets is a running theme in Shenkuuvian cuisine—especially popular are apple slices peeled to resemble Snowbunnies, not to mention sushi rolls that when sliced look like Cyodrakes' faces!
Chili Stir Fry – Have you ever tried to stir fry a bowl of chili? Difficult, but tasty!
Beware, this dish is not for the faint of tongue! It does, however, highlight the extensive use of the chili pepper in southern Shenkuuvian cooking, where food runs far spicier than in the north. While I certainly can't handle the explosion of heat in my mouth, my Grundo tells me this stir fry is a sloppy, hearty, spicy-sweet meal, the whole peppers lending a crunch to the smooth noodles.
Chocolate Momo – Dessert dumplings filled with banana and covered in chocolate.
My family's favourite dessert dish; we order this every time we see it on a menu. Chocolate momo are a result of the aforementioned fusion cuisine phenomenon at work, as chocolate is not native to Shenkuu (it is actually native to Roo Island, but that is another topic for another time) but has become a beloved confectionery ingredient here. Bananas, despite being known primarily as a Mystery Island crop, are also native to the southern isles of Shenkuu, while momo are traditional dumplings whose fillings can either be savoury or sweet.
In the case of chocolate momo, the dumplings are filled with mashed banana and then quickly deep-fried in much the same way as tempura, leaving them crispy and bubbly without being laden in oil. The momo are then drizzled with a thin dark chocolate sauce that tends to pool in the crevices of the dumplings. The end result is an utterly unbelievable mix of crunchy, chewy, and syrupy, a mouthful of sweetness perfectly offset by the slight bitterness of the chocolate.
Cold Buckwheat Noodles – Don't forget your dipping sauce.
A traditional dish in the hot, humid Shenkuuvian summertime, these noodles have a very earthy taste and, by themselves, are not exactly something to Neomail home about. Where they really shine is incorporated into flavourful dishes such as this. In this case, the sauce mentioned is a salty-sweet dip which the noodles are swirled around in after being picked up with chopsticks. The noodles absorb the taste of the sauce and become a refreshingly cold, yet savoury meal, perfect for lunch in the heat of the day.
Ice Cream Dumplings – Oh, a nice little ice cream treat that is just bite size and is covered in a light dough.
Another example of fusion cuisine, as ice cream was unknown in Shenkuu until the land's introduction to the rest of Neopia. In this case, small balls of ice cream are encased in traditional pounded, sweetened rice dough for a more dessert-ish twist on regular dumplings. Like crème-filled sandwich cookies, these can be eaten in many ways, and half the fun of eating them is deciding how you are going to. Just biting into one is not suggested for those with sensitive teeth, who might be better off tearing off a little bit of the dough and licking at the ice cream beneath. My personal favourite technique is to let the ice cream melt a little, then eat off all of the dough, which by then will be covered in an extra layer of melty flavour, and save the rest of the ice cream for last.
These dumplings are generally colour-coordinated for ease of telling what kind of ice cream has been used—fruit flavours are common, as are chocolate, vanilla, and green tea. Teal dumplings are most likely juppie-flavoured, while pink should be strawberry, and orange might be mango (or tigersquash). Some chefs like to mix this up, though, or come up with more obscure flavours, so never be afraid to ask if you're not sure what something is!
Oozing Negg Buns – A rare treat from the nests of Shenkuu mountains.
One of the most interesting things about foods in Neopia is their ability to just plain baffle you at times. Take negg buns as an example. While they look and taste for all the world like traditional, Neopet-made buns, the presence of stems and the mention of "nests" in their item description suggests they have been harvested, and none of the chefs I spoke with were able to give me a concrete answer. But I suppose some things were just meant to be a mystery.
Mystery or no, what I can tell you is that these buns are delicious. They consist of delicate flour dough baked (or grown?) into a round shape, but their real draw is the sweet, sticky "yolk" in the centre, reminiscent of real neggs, which serves as the perfect filling for the bread "shell".
Pickled Cucumbers – These sweet pickled cucumbers have a bit of hot spice added to them.
Pickled vegetables are very common in Shenkuuvian cuisine. Before the advent of ice magic to keep foods fresh, pickling was often the only way to ensure produce would last on a journey or through the winter. So pickled cucumbers are some of the most venerable of Shenkuuvian fare. Although they are most commonly preserved with a small amount of chili pepper to give them a spicy edge, I prefer the non-spicy variation of the dish. Unlike standard pickles from Neopia Central, Shenkuu pickled cucumbers have a more delicate and sweet taste, and often come sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Seaweed Salad – Now you seaweed, now you dont! Yum!
Sushi is not the only byproduct of Shenkuu's strong reliance on the ocean for foodstuffs. Seaweed, also known as sea vegetables (which would be more technically correct), comes in many different varieties. This salad showcases all of them in a rainbow of colour, mixed with a sweet sesame sauce. While seaweed may look unappetizing to the uninitiated, and its unusual slippery, gummy texture will probably always be an acquired taste, it's well worth a try as sea vegetables are high in essential minerals.
Shenkuu Mountain Miso Soup – Me so hungry for miso soup!
I would be remiss if I did not include one of my most absolute favourite dishes of all time in this article. Miso soup is truly a catch-all meal: it's hearty, flavourful, easy to make, easy to modify to your liking, and packed with nutrients. In fact, I try to make sure I have all of the ingredients on-hand in my own Neohome, as whenever my pets or I feel under the weather, this wonder soup helps pick us back up.
At this point you're probably wondering: just what is miso? Remember how I talked about ancient Shenkuuvians doing a lot of pickling to preserve foods? Miso was also developed in this way, by fermenting grains or legumes with salt and a certain type of (harmless) fungus spore. The result is a highly salty, flavourful, and nutrient-dense paste that can be used as a base for dressings and sauces.
But soup is what miso has been most traditionally used for, especially during snowy Shenkuuvian winters. Different regions have their own variations on miso—in the warmer south, it developed as a more delicate dish featuring mushrooms, while the northern incarnation is a hearty stew packed with root vegetables. Both varieties generally employ tofu as their protein addition, and both are delicious. There is nothing quite like sipping on a steaming hot bowl of miso soup while watching snow fall in a hush outside your paper doors. It might even inspire you to compose a poem about the occasion!
Tofu Satay – Healthy and delicious!
Our last item comes from the southerly islands of Shenkuu, which developed a distinctive cuisine all their own that just recently has become incorporated into Shenkuuvian fare at large. Tofu is another ancient Shenkuuvian food made of coagulated soymilk. High in protein and calcium, it has a ubiquitous presence across the region. A favoured preparation in the south is this grilled dish, consisting of skewered chunks of marinated tofu cooked over flame. The satay sauce itself is a sweet and tangy peanut-based glaze that I simply cannot get enough of. Served over a bed of rice with vegetables on the side, this is another of my go-to meals.
And thus concludes the Shenkuu edition of what will hopefully be an ongoing series of articles. I hope you enjoyed this look into culinary history, and I hope the food descriptions left your mouth watering. Now go out and explore what Neopia's chefs have to offer!